Longtime Lobo men’s basketball fans know that
March 11, 1978
was the date that began the Curse of March Sadness in Loboland,
the day unheralded
Cal State Fullerton rallied in the second half of their NCAA
Tournament game to
upset nationally-ranked New Mexico 90-85 in Tempe, Ariz.
With Lobo legends Marvin “Automatic” Johnson and Michael Cooper in the line-up, everyone from the fans to the national media expected to see the Lobos in the Final Four. A trip back home to the world famous Pit for the Sweet Sixteen seemed a certainty. But things don’t always work out that way.
Henry T had former Lobo coach Norm Ellenberger, who prowled the sideline that day with his flared slacks and turquoise jewelry, on his Henry T radio show Saturday afternoon. Here’s the transcript of their conversation.
Henry T: Coach, it was a nightmare to us. What was it to you and your players and your coaches?
Norm Ellenberger: Well, this call isn’t quite that bad, but uh, it was a nightmare. You can fill in any of the blanks that you want to because there was more involved than just me. There was certainly more involved than just the players. We carried, every week we carried not only Albuquerque, but New Mexico on our backs everywhere we went. And we were proud of that and discussed that. Myself and the players did clinics for the young kids all over the entire state and so it was more than just what the press was saying.
Certainly we were ranked with an opportunity to go in and win all the marbles, but that wasn’t to be. And the, carrying that always is a wonderful frame to be in that position, but sometimes it doesn’t come ou the way you want it.
HT: You had a great team, ranked No. 4 in the country, destined for the Final Four in some people’s minds. If you could have beaten Fullerton that afternoon, your friendly famous Pit was waiting for you in the Western regional and looking forward to a full house on your home court with hopefully an avenue to get to the Final Four or the Elite Eight.
When you recall all of that, what comes to mind?
NE: Well, first of all, pressure started… and don’t get me wrong, pressure is wonderful because pressure makes you get something done. I hear people talk about stress, well, what a bunch of crap. Stress causes you to get things done.
We, the kids, felt a feeling that we hadn’t had through the whole period. In fact, it was so strong that I made the decision to leave two days, a day-and-a-half, earlier than our normal time to go over there, just ti get them away from the telephones in Aluquerque, the people, everybody patting them on the back, telling them how wonderful they are. I could just feel an abnormality in my team.
So anyhow, we were over there early to get away from that and by and large that worked pretty good. We had our hotel rooms and we went to Mesa Junior College, Coach (John) Whisenant was a junior college coach in that area and he got us the Mesa Junior College gym.
And the two practices we had there were amazing. They were just crazy. We beat up on each other and we played as hard as any human can play and we cut practices down just a little so we wouldn’t hurt ourselves before the ball game.
And that, you have to understand that going in; it was build and build and build and build. And, uh, sure, it’s wonderful to read what Cal State Fullerton was, it represents the excellence of West Coast conference. When (U)SC and UCLA get their first picks on recruiting, that league (the Pacific Coast Conference) all of those college and university teams get the great pick of the next bunch.
And uh, they were excellent basketball teams, and we never could quite sell it to the players that they were.
when you recall how you prepped your team, Xs and Os, how you got
physically and all of that as you were alluding to there, how ypi
your team within the game, how you coached your team within the
game, do you
recall today, those questions that were 30-plus years ago?
NE: Well it doesn’t take long in a game to figure out what your team is. The psychology, their mental and emotional situation that they’re in, and, this is a perfect example.
We went into that ball game and just buried them. Buried them, early. They got hit just like… I had a two-and-a-half foot snowstorm this week at my cabin and I couldn’t get out for two days, so that’s how hard we buried them.
OK, now we had this situation, all of the things that that writers and the press and our fans, and our own dreams, was true. This is… we’re going back to Albuquerque. And hell, it’s not even halftime yet. And that’s the situation we got ourselves into.
HT: Wow. You know, when you think back on The Pit, Lobos, Lobomania, make it happen, turquoise and all of that, the uniforms that you designed, man, it was a frenzy. Every game, no seats left, wow! I mean people were going bananas in the streets of the state of New Mexico with Lobomania. All of that created by our imagination, the effort of your players and it was something so special, wed haven’t even touched that sort of… whatever we’re talking about… ever since, coach.
It was unique to all of us.
NE: Well, that’s a… it’s in there. It’s in there. It’s not hidden. It’s carried around by those folks and will be forever. It’s a passion that everybody feels and their pride in the Lobos. And believe me, to be able to help represent that was wonderful.
Let me tell you about halftime, then. So we go in at halftime, and I learned a long time ago, and this is the perfect example, one of the worst things a team can do sometimes, is to take time our for halftime. And I mean, we’re blowin’ and goin’, everybodys shark and the substitutions wed made worked fine and we get into the halftime and believe me, it was just like the air coming out of the balloon.
All of the sudden everybody’s sitting there kind of slouched and, in other words, it’s (like) “It’s over. Is the plane warmed up?” And so, we… I had no answer to that. I mean, I pleaded, I talked to them about how good of shooters they had and so forth and so on. But we had passed that. And we needed to get back in and get an experience and get ourselves going. Well, we got an experience, all right.
We got out there in the second half and,… I don’t recall what lead we had, but it didn’t take long to shot that lead right out the window. Now we’re fighting for our lives. So listen to this Henry, you talk about knowing your team and knowing your players, and ‘What did you do?”
We’d call a time out, let’s say with 7-8 minutes to go and the guys would come in, and they were just lookin’, and you could see in their eyes they can’t believe where they are and what’s happening. And that this is not supposed to be that way. And it just completely had run out of gas, and while the other side of the court that other bunch was just building a fire.
And we never got over it. And I want you to know, we know each other well enough that I don’t make excuses. This isn’t excuses, this is what happened. You know, the worst thing in the world you can do sometimes is take time outs and we got caught up with that because when the air went out of the balloon, we couldn’t get it back because a pretty good doggone team kicked our butts.
HT: Wow. When you get in a situation like that, a lot of coaches have experienced it. You can’t really pull your team back in, you can’t make them Superman when the other team is playing that role already. Uh… wow! Was it a helpless feeling within you and your coaching staff?
NE: (Laughs) Yeah… it… the next thing you want to do is see if you can get another breath. Uh… and, then you ‘ve go to get your team, you get them together and you’ve got more than just yourself. What I like to do in any situation is get the kids off the court, get them into the locker room and get their heads up, tell them, make them feel pride not only with their team but pride within themselves and get on with the next one. And that’s what I tried to do and I don’t think I did a very good job, but I tried.
NE: We just could, we could not get that edge back and that other outfit, they were much better than I like to think our scouting of them, our scouting reports, were sound and we’d gotten scouting reports not just from our own watching them but from other coaches that had played them. So we had a book on them. We knew the guy with the goggles could shoot it in from the parking lot, we knew all of that stuff, well fine. But we didn’t buy into the fact that they could beat us no matter how we played.